Testing time for Mubarak opponent

The postponement of trial proceedings against Egypt's Ayman Nour could set back his presidential bid.

For Ayman Nour, a leading Egyptian opposition figure who has gained international attention for his challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year rule, the ongoing forgery trial against him raises great possibilities - and risks.

If Mr. Nour is found guilty in the trial, which began last month, it could destroy his political career, analysts say. A not-guilty verdict will boost his credibility and popularity in Egypt and abroad - even though they maintain he does not have the support to win in elections against Mr. Mubarak at this point,

"He will be viewed as a hero," says Mustafa Kamel Al Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University. "This will definitely increase Nour's support. He will be seen as a man who won against the government."

Nour's arrest, right before Egypt's first ever multicandidate presidential elections this September, has left many questioning whether the country is committed to democratic reform. While Cairo maintains that Nour's trial is not politically motivated, Washington is closely watching this case, which has created tension between the countries.

The Egyptian government charges Nour and six others with falsifying signatures when his Al Ghad ("Tomorrow") opposition party applied for recognition last fall. In the latest court session last Wednesday, the judge postponed the trial until Sept. 25, most likely after the elections.

Predictions about Nour's potential at the polls began circulating with the start of the trial. Maintaining his innocence, Nour claims the government raised the case against him because the authorities are afraid he could win against Mubarak, who is expected to seek a fifth six-year term.

Nour's defense got a push last month when an Al Ghad Party worker admitted that he had falsely confessed to helping Nour forge signatures under threats from Egypt's security forces.

The July 6 decision to postpone the trial, however, is seen as a setback, particularly for Nour's presidential bid.

"When [Nour] talks to people about change, the first question will be about the case against him," says Nour's wife and spokeswoman, Gameela Ismail. "He will lose 70 percent of his effort defending himself as a candidate."

But if the Egyptian government's strategy was to stifle Nour, his arrest and trial have instead given him greater impetus, allowing him a platform to voice his opinions and to rail against the government.

"I'm 40 years old and the president is 77," says Nour from the office of the recently launched Al Ghad newspaper. "He had 24 years of failure. All I'm asking for is 24 months to achieve success." Nour has promised to hold new presidential elections two years after he is elected.

But Nour's arrest and trial have also exposed him to criticism, analysts say. Nour's detractors claim that he has not proved himself as a mature politician. They call him an agent of the United States and also question his finances, asking how he can afford a luxury villa with a pool in a posh Cairo district.

"[This trial] does expose him to a lot of attacks, not only from government sources, but when you talk to some people who are not in the government, they view him as a charlatan," says Walid Kazziha, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo.

Born in 1964 in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, Nour studied law at Mansoura University before becoming a journalist for the liberal Wafd Party newspaper.

Rising through the party's ranks, he eventually became an elected member of the Wafd's higher committee. Nour then won a seat in Egypt's parliament in 1995 and again in 2000. After he was dismissed from the Wafd in 2001, he went on to help found Al Ghad.

Despite Nour's credentials, doubts remain about whether he has what it takes to be a major Egyptian leader - or even president - one day. Critics claim that the media and this court case are what have brought him new fame, not his leadership abilities.

"Ayman Nour is the only man who is benefiting from going to court," says Makram Mohamed Ahmed, former editor-in-chief of the state-controlled weekly, Al Musawwar. "He's trying to show people that he can compete with Mubarak. He has really exaggerated his position."

Analysts agree that Nour's public support is mainly limited to Cairo, and that he lacks the necessary strong political structure.

They also point to the burgeoning civil reform movement that is underway in Egypt, saying that Nour is only one voice of many in the current campaign. Prominent groups like Al-Kifaya, which continues to organize demonstrations, and the Muslim Brotherhood, are more actively pushing for change.

Still, some analysts argue that Nour is a savvy, outspoken, and truly liberal politician. As leader of Al Ghad, a party whose demands include democratic reform and empowering the country's silent majority and its youth, Nour also represents hope for the future.

"All the government's reforms have been false," says Nagui El Ghatrifi, a retired Egyptian ambassador and a deputy in Al Ghad. "It wants to buy time, so when I saw how Mr. Nour is operating and what he says to the people, I found him a very credible chance for change."

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